Saturday, February 6, 2016

"France becomes first country to force all supermarkets to give unsold food to the needy"

"Supermarkets in France have been banned from throwing away or spoiling unsold food by law.

The stores are now required to donate unwanted food to charities and food banks.

To stop foragers, some supermarkets have poured bleach over the discarded food or storing binned food in locked warehouses."

Read more from source here.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

"Spain at last welcomes back the Sephardim"

"Following new legislation, the first descendants of expelled Jews get Spanish nationality..."

Read from from source at El Pais in English here.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Speaking on Borders of Belonging at the University of Barcelona

This Wednesday afternoon, along with two other writers - Gloria Montero and Inez Baranay -  I will be speaking at an international seminar titled Borders of Belonging at the University of Barcelona.

I will be focusing on gender and emotion, two themes that are explored in my non-fiction book, The Remade Parent.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Spanish link with ancient Irish human genomes

[Reconstruction of Ballynahatty Neolithic skull by Elizabeth Black. Her genes tell us she had black hair and brown eyes. Image credit: Barrie Hartwell.]
" Researchers have sequenced ancient (5,200 to 4,000 years old) Irish human genomes for the first time and found that they were very similar to Spanish and Sardinian people."

Read more from source here.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

"Lessons from Paris" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

The recent tragic terrorist murders in Paris (and sadly also elsewhere) can teach us plenty. And if we choose to not learn all that we can from these tragedies then we are as good as inviting further bloodshed and horror.

One of the biggest mistakes that I think is made around terrorism is that it is treated as something special and different from other serious violent crimes. Maybe because it comes out of the everyday (the train, a bus, a cafe, a concert) and because it’s most recent form targets no one in particular, we lose our common sense and fear that ourselves or our loved ones will be next.

It seems to me that acts of mass terrorism (just like other acts of murder) are committed by people with motive (though of course grossly perverted motives) and the means to do so on a large scale (automatic weapons and explosives, typically.) Motive and means: any attempt to deal with terrorism that does not focus on both these factors is bound to fail.

I believe that radical, extreme Islam is merely something that the Paris terrorists (amongst others) just hang their hats on. Exactly like the average North American (white male) gunman shooting up innocents at a school or an abortion clinic, what they are really fueled by is frustration that turns to resentment which then becomes great rage. Some terrorists have come from well-off backgrounds but the biggest causes of so-called ‘radicalisation’ are poverty and a need to belong, a need for identity.

When mainstream society systematically isolates migrants or people who see themselves as not being accepted by the wider majority, it is natural that resentment arises in the body and mind of those who now think of themselves as a kind of victim. If they find a focus for this bitterness - and fundamentalist religions have a slippery way of creating one - then self-isolation and a bunker/siege mentality is not far away.

In the small town where we live our teenage son has some friends whose parents are Moroccan. None of these boys were born in Morocco and they speak Catalan with our son and the other kids around. I know that some parents have told their children not to hang around with them even though they do not cause any trouble. How are these friends of my son supposed to feel? Could anyone blame them for being resentful and even angry towards the parents who insist on discrimination against them?

I am not arguing that these attitudes directly create terrorists of course. What I am saying is that it can and does contribute towards what sociologists call ‘marginalisation:’ humans pushing other humans to the edges of society. It is only logical then that these young boys will identify themselves as more Moroccan/Muslim than Catalan or Spanish because they have been rejected by parts of its more powerful, established society.

Despite all the grave social problems that run through Australia, the UK and the USA, in those parts of the planet it is standard to be both a Muslim and an Australian/American/Brit without suffering from any major confusion of who you are. Yes, there are bigots but unlike Europe there are very few ‘successful’ acts of Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.

In the run-down outer suburbs of Paris (the ‘banlieues’) where young men "of Arab appearance" are routinely stopped for ritual humiliation by police, I wonder if they think of themselves as French first.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, January 2016.]

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

"On Spain, Greece, Italy and our plans for a European movement to democratise the EU" – Interviewwith Yanis Varoufakis in L’Espresso

"The plan is simple: To launch, in early February, a pan-European movement with a single, radical objective: To democratise the EU! 

To form a movement that seeks to harness the energy of pro-European radical critics of Brussels and Frankfurt in order to prevent the disintegration of the EU. 

In short, to show that there is a third alternative to the calamitous ‘choice’ between: (a) those who want to return to the cocoon of the nation-state, and (b) those who accept the authoritarian, ineffective policies of the deeply anti-democratic EU institutions."

Read more here.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Immigrants and The Vote in Spain

Young people at a demonstration
With the Spanish election tomorrow these words are particularly relevant...

"An article about how the foreigners living in Spain (better than four million of us) are ignored by the politicians. It's not just that we don't have the vote (and thus, some influence), it's that the politicians are frightened about giving us any attention as it could cost them domestic votes. A quote from an immigrant association in Madrid: "This campaign has not mentioned the foreigners (4.4 million of us live in Spain). There has been nothing, neither good nor bad, said about us. We simply do not exist. Could we generate votes? Not from Immigrants. If someone speaks up for us, then Society disagrees. In our association we have already received several 'threats' and we have been left messages on the door showing that immigrants are to blame for all ills, even for the corruption of the parties."

Translated from an article in El Diario, courtesy of the highly informative Business Over Tapas.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

"Hungary Adds a Flashy Website and a Lawsuit to Its Anti-Refugee Arsenal"

"Image by The text reads: “The compulsory resettlement quota INCREASES THE RISK OF TERRORISM! On average one illegal immigrant arrives to Europe every 12 seconds. We don’t know who they are or what their intentions are. We don’t know how many are undercover terrorists.”


"Throughout 2015, unprecedented numbers of refugees have flowed into Europe. Relying on informal channels and sheer luck, those fleeing war and persecution are finding either helping hands and warm welcomes or barbed wire fences and insurmountable bureaucratic obstacles upon arrival.
The European Union has shown itself to be largely unprepared to adequately deal with influx, and proposed solutions have come up against leaders who prefer to do nothing or drum up fear and xenophobia in their own countries to gain political leverage. 

Hungary has been particularly vocal about its anti-refugee stance, misleading the public with a national consultation that equated migration with terrorism and a nationwide fear-mongering billboard campaign.
But Hungarian authorities aren't done yet. 

The government of Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party have announced plans for its next billboard campaign, this time specifically against the EU-proposed plan to resettle refugees in so-called frontline countries like Italy and Greece across the continent. 

The first billboards of the campaign, which will cost around 380 million forint (around 1.2 million euros) of taxpayers’ money, are up, and full-page adverts pushing the government's arguments have already run in large national dailies.
On December 3, 2015, Hungary also launched a legal challenge to the EU’s refugee relocation plan. Last month, it debuted an aggressive petition against the EU's proposed measures as well. Stands have popped up on the streets, run by ill-prepared activists promoting fabricated numbers and racists opinions (video in Hungarian). 

According to official sources, around 900,000 to 1 million signatures have been collected so far.
The petition can also be signed online via an official government website rife with factual inaccuracies.

Read more at source: Global Voices, here.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

"Conversus interruptus" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

Selective semi-listening. Fading in and out of the conversation. Attention-divided syndrome. Texting while talking. Missing the point. Ignorance-bliss. Even not paying attention to your own words when you are the one speaking them.

"Is that my mobile ringing?"
“Were you just saying saying something about something?”

I propose a new verb: keywording. = to only notice a few key words in someone’s spoken sentence. Eg.”Are you keywording me?” [ie. Are you only half-hearing me?]
Politicians and PR people have been doing a similar thing (but intentionally) in the media for years: answering the question that they want to answer rather than the one that has actually been asked.
It is becoming just as common in daily life to go about keywording eachother. The best laid ideas can just float away unheeded.

When we stop paying genuine attention to each we stop paying attention to the words used by those who govern us. So when we hear the word "austerity" we accept it instead of realising what it really means: our elected representatives selling parts of public hospitals to private comapnies so they can profit from our illness. We hear the words "budgetary responsibility" and we don't stop to think that it means continuing to allow tax evasion for the richest and their businesses while public servants salaries are slashed.

As George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) the Irish playwright and essayist once wrote, ""The problem with communication is the illusion that it has occurred."

Re-reading the great Primo Levi’s “The Reawakening” a while ago I was reminded like a glass of ice water in the face that we have this human need to be understood. And when I say ‘understood’ I don’t just mean comprehended through language. I mean in an empathetic sense of the word: to be heard, to be understood well, and to be recognized as speaking important truths – important because they are human experiences that must be felt and genuinely identified with, by fellow humans.

My own struggles with communicating in a second language are tiny compared to Levi’s fear that his accounts of his year in Auschwitz’s Nazi concentration camp would be ignored or not believed.

But I want to live my life (and hope others will too) with Terentius’ maxim of: Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto. In…

English: I am a human being, so nothing human is strange to me.
Catalan: Sóc un ésser humà; això fa que rés humà em sigui aliè.
Castilian Spanish: Hombre soy, nada humano me es ajeno .

In other words, a great variety of human experience always has at least something that we can relate to. Live as a good listener and a verbaliser because that is the ideal for full and best communication, I try to regularly tell myself. I know this has been one of the strongest mutual reasons for my relationship with my partner (wife) enduring and thriving for more than twenty years.

[This article was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, December 2015.]

Saturday, November 28, 2015

"Flashmobs and flamenco: how Spain’s greatest artform became a tool for political protest"

"Flamenco is perhaps Spain’s most alluring cultural phenomenon, characterised by the stereotypes of sun, passion and tumbling black hair. Political protest and social activism are less likely to come to mind when thinking of flamenco, but for some performers it has always been a powerful tool for voicing political protest.

Never more so than today. 

Spain has suffered immensely in the global economic crisis – especially Andalusia, the southernmost region of the country most associated with flamenco. Neoliberalism has taken its toll on the Spanish people, who are suffering one of the highest levels of unemployment in Europe. In 2011, this led to the infamous 15M (indignados) protest movement that mobilised millions of citizens across the country to challenge policies of austerity following the banking crisis.

On the back of this movement, the flashmob group Flo6x8 has rebranded flamenco as a powerful political weapon. This anti-capitalist group has been well publicised for its political performances that have taken place in banks and even the Andalusian parliament. 

Using the body and voice as political tools, the group carries out carefully choreographed acciones (actions) in front of bemused bank staff and customers. These performances are recorded and then posted online, attracting a huge number of views."

Read more at The Conversation here.

Friday, November 13, 2015

" 638,000 Catalans living in state of 'energy poverty' "

"A lack of an adequate source of energy can cause serious problems and even lead to death. This is the finding of a study carried out by Barcelona's public health agency as part of a programme overseen by the EU's Project Sophie.

Those at greatest risk are women aged between 70 and 79 with no formal studies. There are three main causes for what is commonly known now as “energy poverty”: low income, poor quality hosing, and the price of energy, especially electricity.

The study investigated the mortality rates of people living in social housing between the years 1986 and 2012 and clearly demonstrated that mortality rates were lower in buildings which had been renovated and had thermal insulation installed. 

In [this accomodation] there was a clear difference in mortality, especially among women, a fact that is explained by the time women in those dwellings spent at home, according to researcher Andrés Peralta, as well as the lower income of women, especially those living alone. Figures showed that between 10% and 40% of above average mortality can be attributed to energy poverty."

Sònia Pau - Catalonia Today magazine.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

"Badly chosen words" - My latest opinion column for Catalonia Today magazine

I’m a huge fan of the UK’s public broadcaster, the BBC. It still produces some of the best TV anywhere in the world but one thing it does tests my affection for it. Even after it’s been pointed out to them by several different commentators, BBC news continues to use the word ‘migrant’ when they are reporting on people who are clearly refugees.

And this is not a new problem with their use of dishonest language. A few years ago some of the terms they used about the bulldozing of refugees temporary shelter at Calais in France were revealing.

The BBC has repeatedly used the word ‘clear’ in its various reports, which I would argue is something done to get rid of rubbish, mess (or possibly to forests.) This was a term also used by other British media figures such as LBC radio’s Nick Ferrari. The German press, Deutsche Welle called it “a raid” (something usually done against criminals) and quoted extensively from the British Home Affairs minister and the German Immigration minister.

It was only then that they gave some space to a different perspective: a spokesperson from the UN Refugee Agency. This was done under the heading of “[The] Problem of illegal immigration continues.” So to them the problem is somehow one of illegal immigration, not for example, the substandard living conditions of the mainly refugees, plenty of whom are children.

Unfortunately, the French socialist politician Jack Lang also put it clumsily when he stated that the French government’s arrest of the Calais refugees was “simply raking the leaves from one side to another.” His heart might be in the right place, even if his mouth was not. Lang could be correct though in his prediction that other camps will quickly appear along the French coast. “The problem” of the camps will not just go away, as the Guardian’s Alan Travis succinctly phrased it.

I suppose those two words "raid" and "cleared" do not actually sound so bad if you believe that the refugees living in the camps were somehow at fault for being there. To me, that does not seem to be the case. I have never been to Afghanistan but my guess is that, as bad as the camp was, many refugees who survived there preferred it to the way that life had turned for them in their former country, as long as there was some hope of a better existence in the UK or anywhere else.

I would think that most - if not all - have already tried claiming asylum or are in the process of doing so. There are many people who genuinely need refuge from tyrannical regimes and war zones like Afghanistan (and more recently Syria) and I cannot see a good reason why any country should be exempted from being (just one) of the nations who should accept those most in need of sanctuary.

It is more than apparent that EU agencies have failed these desperate people - especially in Syria and Afghanistan - who have also been failed by their fanatical countrymen, and the international forces there who together have made the conditions of life in those countries so intolerable. 

[A version of this article (under the tittle "Carefully mischosen words") was first published in Catalonia Today magazine, November 2015.]

Sunday, November 1, 2015